Supporting Women in Business – former Ambassador Susan Coles shares lessons from her career with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)

Learn how DFAT helps women in business both inside and outside Australia.

Have you ever wondered what DFAT does and how this knowledge can be of benefit  to your business? Even better – what does an Australian Ambassador do? Susan Coles is a WCEI member and has been both the Deputy Director of DFAT in Victoria and the Australian Ambassador to Mauritius & the Indian Ocean Islands. 

On March 30, 2022 WCEI member Susan Coles presented a webinar to Victorian members and shared insights into how she has worked with DFAT to support women in Business, in particular mentoring programs and connecting women in business across the Indian Ocean, from Africa to Australia, who share her passion for womens’ economic empowerment.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade assists businesses, including women entrepreneurs, through our trade promotion work and development of trade agreements, through development projects overseas, and also through our economic diplomacy in Australia, which can include direct grants focusing on trade in a particular country or geographic region, making business introductions, or hosting or supporting women in business events, often in conjunction with Austrade or business chambers. 

I have been active in women’s economic empowerment projects in countries where I have been posted, most particularly when I was Ambassador in the Indian Ocean (2014-17). There, I was responsible for approving a grant and helping to design a mentoring project run by Women Chiefs of Enterprise (Tasmania) member Di Thompson, and a counterpart business women’s organisation operating in Mauritius and the region. The mentoring program involved training women mentors to guide other women either new to business or wanting to expand their business. The program ‘Business without Borders’ is now in its sixth year, and is expanding beyond its Indian Ocean roots to the African continent. Since 2015 the program has been responsible for training over 100 women entrepreneurs across the Indian Ocean. Some of these have moved from small Artisanal workshops to exporting; into manufacturing, or been able for the first time to access finance to grow their business, developing confidence and expertise in business and financial planning. 

When asked about a comment or saying by a woman entrepreneur I have supported, I think of Aline Wong, a business leader in Mauritius involved in rolling out our mentoring program & who has built up her textile and clothing export business over 20 years. Her saying also serves as the motto for the Mauritian organisation of women entrepreneurs: “Alone we are invisible, together we are invincible.” This reinforces the value women can be to other women, not only in business but also in life. It also brings to mind the flip side of that solidarity: and a famous saying of the first woman US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who sadly passed away recently and who said “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women”. With the many challenges women still face,  giving other women a helping hand and sharing the benefit of your experience is what mentoring is all about.

One of the questions asked in our discussion was ‘tell us a major failure that changed your life.’ When I was at university, I did fail a major exam – which surprised some people (especially me), as I was generally a good student. I realised that I had a tendency to see myself as a ‘victim’ whenever I failed: to look outside myself for reasons as to why I failed, rather than within – when perhaps I just had not done the work. When I resat that exam I was absolutely terrified; so whenever I felt fear of failure in my career afterwards I would look back and say – “I shouldn’t be afraid of (….whatever I felt nervous about); … I went back into that exam room and faced my biggest fear – nothing will ever be so terrifying ever again”.  Whether it’s hosting a crowd of 300 people and making a speech introducing a Foreign Minister;  meeting a President or Prime Minister and wondering what to say; or negotiating a trade agreement in a room full of men, I have looked back and thought– ‘you did that exam and passed; you can do anything!’

These experiences have also reinforced the value of doing your “homework” professionally or in any business context, as well as for exams.  For example, from studying up on the correct form of address, and the likes and dislikes of any Minister or a CEO you are hosting or meeting at a business event; to being thoroughly prepared with your speech, your pitch or your negotiating brief ….and sometimes practicing aloud (in front of a mirror) – so as to both look and sound poised, knowledgeable and confident. 

Women Ambassadors serve as role models and can help break down barriers especially in countries where many economic or political leaders are men: ‘if you can’t see it you can’t be it’. As well as Australia’s female Foreign Minister and Minister for Women @MarisePayne,  DFAT also has a dedicated Ambassador for Women and Girls, Christine Clarke, who advocates for gender equality and the rights of women and girls:  @AusAmbGender.  You can check out the DFAT website or social media for more information about programs to advance womens’s economic empowerment. 

Susan Coles took up her position as Deputy State Director of the Victoria State Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in March 2018.  Prior to this appointment, she spent three and a half years as Australia’s Ambassador in the Indian Ocean region, with responsibility for Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and the Comores. In this role Susan showcased Australia’s lead on gender empowerment, including a mentoring program for women entrepreneurs in four countries. In over twenty experience in law and diplomacy, her earlier achievements include as principal negotiator for the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women Optional Protocol, representing Australia at the UN Human Rights Commission and as a trade negotiator.